Universal Credit Uncovered? A challenge to the Govt to keep listening

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A blog post by
Natalie Williams
Head of Policy & Communications at Jubilee+ and volunteer at Hastings Foodbank 


While last week’s news has now been overshadowed by the announcement by Prime Minister Theresa May that she will step down, there is a lot that has happened that is important and mustn’t be missed or lost.

For example, a report issued by Human Rights Watch last Monday accusing the UK government of failing in its international duty under human rights law to ensure that people have enough to eat. Furthermore, it specifically blames the government for pursuing “cruel and harmful policies”.

The NGO has been investigating human rights abuses around the world for over 40 years – exposing abuses such as those taking place among refugees in Europe, with immigration in the US, in Syria’s civil war, the conflict in South Sudan and mass killings in the Philippines. It issued its Nothing Left in the Cupboards report on Monday. With the subheading Austerity, Welfare Cuts, and the Right to Food in the UKthe report accused the UK government of a “draconian restructuring of the country’s welfare system” that has “been disastrous for poor families’ living standards and in particular their access to adequate food”.

Two days later, last Wednesday, the Metro newspaper ran a four-page advertorial by the Department for Work & Pensions (DWP), claiming that the concerns of charities such as Jubilee+ about Universal Credit are just myths, and not the truth. Likely to have cost many thousands of pounds and just the first in a nine-week run of advertising features, this first DWP advert says that it is a myth that “you have to wait 5 weeks to get any money on Universal Credit”. It follows this with: “Fact. If you need money your Jobcentre will urgently pay you an advance.”

This is an interesting use of the words ‘myth’ and ‘fact’, because actually both are true. Claimants DO have to wait five weeks for their first Universal Credit payment, BUT they can have a loan from the DWP from day one. This loan has to be repaid within 12 months. Rather than struggle on a lower income for a whole year, some people decide to try to make it through the five weeks without a loan. At food banks and debt centres across the country, we see many who tried really hard to get by in the gap, but simply couldn’t.

As the Trussell Trust food bank network points out in its response to the DWP advertisement, “Advance payments are not the solution… Even small repayments can have a big impact when people are living on a knife edge.”

A few months ago I had the privilege of shadowing staff at a nearby Jobcentre. What I saw was staff absolutely committed to helping people to navigate the system. Between two members of staff, over the course of almost two hours one particularly vulnerable man was given outstanding attention and care. However, by the end of this initial appointment with him, he left the Jobcentre assured that he would have a £317 advance that day, but that once his Universal Credit payments kicked in, his repayments would be over £100 per month for the next 12 months because this was his third loan from the government.

On the same day as the DWP ad ran, MPs on the work and pensions committee heard from a number of charities about women who have resorted to selling sex to survive the five-week wait for Universal Credit.

Also on the same day, the UN’s special rapporteur on poverty published his full report. With a similar perspective as Human Rights Watch, Philip Alston’s report claims that the government is in denial about the impact of policies such as Universal Credit. The next day, it was revealed that Work & Pensions Secretary Amber Rudd plans to lodge a formal complaint, saying that Alston’s report is politically biased. Today, Alston has responded to this news by saying it shows “a total denial of a set of uncontested facts”.

On the last two occasions when I have met with Amber Rudd, she has seemed not only willing to listen to stories from the front lines, but eager to have critical friends who will tell her how things really are for those facing poverty in communities across the country.

We have welcomed some of her public statements about and adjustments of Universal Credit (see hereherehere and here, for example). But just as we applaud moves that will fix some of the flaws built into Universal Credit and improve it for the poorest and most vulnerable, we also cannot fail to express concern when we see a change in direction. And that is what we’re seeing now. Instead of rhetoric that bolsters opportunities for collaborative working, instead of statements that show the government is listening and aware of the hardship its policies are causing for some – now we are seeing a doubling down and digging in of the heels.

Statements in response to food bank figures and an ad campaign costing thousands and thousands of pounds are troubling signs that remind us of previous Work & Pensions Secretaries who were not prepared to admit to any flaws in the execution of Universal Credit.

There’s no denial from us that Universal Credit is an effective welfare system for the majority. Our concern is for the significant proportion for whom it isn’t working.

And that’s why we urge Amber Rudd and the DWP to continue open dialogue with charities working on the frontlines of supporting people in poverty, but also to speak and act publicly in a way that doesn’t polarise and push charities away, but instead helps us to work together to make the system more compassionate.